Commentary: The Car Community Online, Love it or Hate It!

A few generations ago, when discussions and debates about which brand is better took place, it was settled out on the street.

We met on a free stretch of road. One brought out a Ford with a flat-head V8 and all the modifications necessary for an argument. Another brought out a Chevrolet with one of those new fangled Small Blocks sticking out of the hood. You talked, but only to psyche out the competition. Then, both throttles were depressed sharply and away they went…onto an awaiting police car.

In the ensuing years, these debates expanded to include Mopars, European and Japanese cars. The format never changed – the street was the ultimate judge and jury.

However, an invention caught the imagination of a nation and the world – the Internet. This fascinating new world had the ability to transmit data across telephone wires at the speed of a thought. The next thing we knew, we were discussing anything and everything regardless of where we are on this planet.

With this amazing new technology, the debates that were once the province of the street were soon moved elsewhere. The Internet soon was littered with the same debates, now posted onto websites, online forums, chat rooms, E-mails and social media portals.

Within seconds, you can tell someone else that his or her car sucked. Another few seconds later, you got a response. All without getting behind the wheel to prove each other – right or wrong. Images of each other's vehicles also join in the debate whether a photo editing software augmented them – or not.

Even in the world of online adventure, the car community exists. They permeate in online forums, enthusiast websites and on social media portals. But, where exactly do they exist?

The biggest hive of activity online appears to be in the forums, now supplanted by Facebook groups and other similar orifices. Message strings based on a specific discussion topic of interest drive these forums. You could talk about a technical issue your vehicle is experiencing to organizing meets. In some of my automotive writer colleague' cases, message strings could also spark debate on current issues from future product development to a company’s recent press release on sustainability.

These discussion sites tended to be places where the most sensitive person would need long-term therapy to get over an attack over a comment made. These are full of people who believe they are right and everyone else is, well, lower phylum of humanity.

Because of a recent interaction at a car meet for this series, one of my pieces were reposted onto a group's forum. This was brought to my attention from one of the organizers of the group, who in turn pointed me to the website and the subsequent forum. On one hand, it is a very informative forum – that is, if you are into extreme engine and suspension tuning. There are also news about amateur racing, meet-ups and other news pertaining to the audience's culture.

After perusing that group's forums, I began to lurk elsewhere. Some were similar to the forum I just read. Others were virtual bloodbaths full of fan boys/girls, naysayers and other summary opinionated people. Caught in the middle seemed to be the moderators. Moderators operate in various ways – ranging from police officers to engaging hosts. The trick to moderating a forum is to find a diplomatic way to say to agree or "agree to disagree." Moderators, by rule, should never truly take sides of an argument. There is no guarantee that some follow that rule.

For the most part, forums seem to not be my cup of tea. However, the idea of the forum has been ported over to social media. Well, at least the temper of the forum…

Social media has become a virtual hive of activity to ensure the connectivity between car people. Every site and forum now has a Facebook page and a smaller number own a Twitter account.

The key to social media is to provide another platform for content from a main source – a forum or a website. It also gives another opportunity to create original and exclusive content for their social media outlets. The end result should be to maximize engagement with a much quicker turnaround.

The result is unprecedented engagement between enthusiasts, journalists and the industry itself. Because social media adds a human factor to the interaction, there is room to develop relationships – both business and personal.

A recent offshoot from social media engagement has been the opportunities for moderated discussions. On Twitter, there are various opportunities happening at most times of the week. Some of these chats are moderated by enthusiasts, while others by journalists, bloggers even personnel inside the industry. The chats range from a single manufacturer focused theme to a much broader platform.

As with forums, you do have a mix of opinions. You also get the fans that support their brand to the death while offering differing opinions when presented with a challenge to their loyalty. Twitter chats sometimes spawn arguments, debates…even civil discussions when the right information is disseminated.

Yet, it appears that the surface has been scratched regarding the online car community. One could reach a certain level of comprehension of the online world without knowing a plethora of outlets available – some underground sites as well.

The trick is to convert the online connection to something offline. How does it actually manifest itself? Who knows?

All photos by Randy Stern

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